“What ya doin’ now?” Justin asked.
“Same as eight minutes ago … making friends.” Greg’s eyes darted as his fingers skipped over his lap device.
Justin peered over Greg’s arm. “How many friends you got now?”
“A lot … five … six … seven … since morning I’ve added two thousand, two hundred and seven … eight … nine …” Greg clicked down the accept list.
Justin threw his arms out and flopped back in his chair. “Wow! You’re the most popular guy I know.”
“Don’t say guy, someone might take it the wrong way.”
“Sorry. You ever gonna meet any of your new friends?” Justin asked. Greg shook his head. “Not even the girls? Girls really go for popular guys, I hear. Makes ‘em get all … you know … like … ahh, excited.”
Greg faked a yawn. “Since when? Girls get all their fantasy characters online, avatars wayyy cooler than me. That way they get to play like they’re magical princesses and don’t even have to comb their hair.”
“I thought it was just me they didn’t like,” Justin said and grimaced.
“Been that way ever since the world got perfect. Who wants normal dudes? Too much work.” Greg shrugged, and Justine went back to clicking.
The galactic overseers watched the scene as they rocked in silence in the mist of the saline hearth. When the monitor darkened, Otch turned to Cot. “You see what we’re up against? That was years ago. We didn’t do anything then, and it’s gotten much worse.”
Cot did not respond and continued waving its many eyestalks in the warm, briny mist. Then it casually lifted a slark worm from the hors d’hoeuvre tray and proceeded to sip extrusion from its shell.
Otch pressed. “Tell me, Cot, how are your humans doing?”
Cot paused only an instant then returned to slark-surping.
Too direct, Otch thought. Cot was sensitive about discussing its humans. Every conversation they’d had on the topic had ended with an argument. Otch retracted its eyestalks, biding its time while Cot ate.
When the last of the slark disappeared from the tray, Otch tried again. “I’m sorry Cot, but I must persist. As you saw on the monitor, my humans are failing to thrive. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’ve done everything to make them happy, given them everything they’ve asked for, and yet they’re dying. Humans don’t know they’re no longer on Earth, but the problems began right after the relocation …” No response. Otch knew what Cot wanted.
“Okay, I apologize,” Ocht said. “I admit, you may have been right about the humans. And I was wrong to side against you in the relocation meeting.”
“You laughed at me,” Cot finally said, its tendrils oscillating.
“I’m sorry for that, too.”
“Then you voted to have my opinions struck from the record.”
“And that, too. But listen, Cot. Nothing is working. The new habitats are identical to the ones humans had on Earth. We just removed the obstacles and smoothed the rough edges—diseases, poor climate, shortages. We made everything perfect for them. Abundant delectable foods, lavish entertainments, rewards for every act, complete safety. We know we missed something. I’m down to a few dozen females, no males. Justin and Greg are gone. When females showed no interest in them, the males kicked around for a while then just stopped living.” Cot nodded as if this should have been expected.
“We want you back on the team,” Otch said. Cot nodded and, after a beat, Ocht asked again, “So how are your humans doing?”
“I’ve got twelve hundred and thirteen,” Cot said quietly.
“No, that’s not possible,” Ocht said, his voice rising in disbelief. “That would mean an increase. Are you saying your population has grown?” Cot nodded. “What? You’ve found some new entertainment for them … some new drug?”
“We’ve had this discussion before, and I won’t go through it again. You and the relocation team only want to hear answers that support your thinking.” When Ocht began to protest, Cot held up a dozen tendrils. “I think we’re done here. Thank you, old friend, for the most excellent slark worms.” With that, Cot bowed and slid from the room.
On returning to its neighborhood, Cot donned the guise of a barn owl and flew out to visit its humans. They worked together to grow food, traded goods, repaired homes and various devices, talked about last night’s storm and how their children were doing in school. Boys and girls talked, sharing their dreams and plans. And everyone complained about how hard life was.